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Salvo 08.25.2020 18 minutes

Scientism: America’s State Religion

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We are hostages to the clerics of an intolerant faith.

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Welcome, and thanks for subscribing to the Roundup, where you'll receive our summary of The American Mind every week in your inbox. We're looking forward to bringing you the best writing and commentary on the ideas that drive the debate in this pivotal time for our nation.

As our nation finds itself wracked by violence and threatened with regime failure, questions of authority become ever more urgent. We believe authority in a free society rests with the people and their representatives, and we abhor the theft of that authority by “experts” from our bureaucratic ruling classes. We present this essay to help expose and articulate one important way in which authority has been stolen from the people and given over to unelected dictators in the name of “Science.”—Eds.

Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) was the enfant terrible of late 20th-century philosophy of science. He delighted in mischief, juxtaposing vast knowledge of science and its history with antics like egging on creationists, playing devil’s advocate for astrology, and calling for the “separation of science and state.”

He has nevertheless secured a place in the canon, because he is brilliant, extremely well-read, and funny—and his views, when correctly understood, are important and challenging. No doubt it helps that he is a man of the Left, despite saying things that were often criticized for giving aid and comfort to the religious Right.

Feyerabend was once labeled “the worst enemy of science” by the prestigious journal Nature. But even a casual reader can see that what Feyerabend actually opposed was scientism, the transformation of science into an ideology and of its practitioners into a secular priesthood.

“I think very highly of science,” he once wrote, “but I think very little of experts.” In his view, scientists too often made of science a “tyranny,” claiming rights over the direction of public policy shared by no other interest group in a democratic society. Through the education system, they impose assent to useful but fallible and limited theoretical abstractions as if they were obligatory dogmas.

Were he alive today, what would the author of “How to Defend Society Against Science” think of recent events? Would he have joined in the shrill denunciation of all skepticism about a lockdown that entailed destroying the jobs and life savings of millions of ordinary working people? Would he have been impressed by the “objectivity” of expert advice that was stridently insisted upon one minute, then suddenly abandoned when doing so became politically expedient? To ask these questions is to answer them.

The main sources for Feyerabend’s views on the proper role of science in a pluralistic democracy are his book Science in a Free Society (1978) and several essays in the third volume of his collected Philosophical Papers. There are three main components to his argument.

First: science as an institution, and liberalism as its house philosophy, have taken over the role that the Church and its theology played in medieval society.

Second: the case for this takeover rests on the purported superiority of the methods and results of science, but crumbles on close inspection.

Third: when consistently applied, the most powerful expression of the liberal idea—John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty—tells against rather than in favor of the hegemony of scientism. Let’s consider these themes in turn.

The Church of Science

Feyerabend argued that scientific rationalism is “a secularized form of the belief in the power of the word of God.” Like scripture, science is taken to stand outside all other human belief systems and practices, and to have the authority to judge them without being judged by them.

The practitioners of scientific rationalism function like the priestly guardians of this revelation, delivering it to the rest of society and telling them how to interpret and apply it. Like prelates in the medieval Church, their authority and that of the institution they represent is presented as beyond question.

If the claims of any other system of belief conflict with what scientists say, it is held that these other systems must change to conform themselves with science, and never the other way around. To think critically is taken to entail thinking in accord with science, and never to entail criticizing science itself.

The educational system inculcates these attitudes, along with the various deliverances of the sciences, just as religious education inculcates theological doctrines and unquestioning acceptance of them. Science is thus given rights and privileges afforded no other institution in society—not the family, not the Church, not the state. Feyerabend writes:

Society…and its institutions, are criticized most severely and often most unfairly and this already at the elementary school level. But science is excepted from the criticism. In society at large the judgement of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgement of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago.

It is true that citizens are not compelled by physical force to accept the claims of science. But in Feyerabend’s view this reflects the greater general liberality of modern societies rather than anything about science itself. “Heretics in science,” he wrote, “are still made to suffer from the most severe sanctions this relatively tolerant civilization has to offer.” They are treated as contemptible oddballs and bigots who can grudgingly be permitted to speak but ought never to be listened to. The appeal to science is taken to settle all respectable debate. Scientia locuta, causa finita est.

Moreover, as with the medieval Church, all of this is backed by the power of the state. Again, scientific claims, along with deference to them and to science as an institution, are instilled in the citizenry via the public education system. Taxpayers are forced to fund the enormous costs of scientific research and the propagation of scientific ideas, whether they agree with them or not.

On matters of public policy in general, the views of scientists are deferred to. For example, when the state involves itself in health care, it will fund only remedies approved by scientists, never Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, faith healing, the advice of Hopi medicine men, or voodoo—even if the citizens who pay the bills would prefer the latter remedies.

The hegemony of science is nevertheless typically presented as if it were merely part of the neutral framework provided by a modern liberal polity. But the neutrality of liberalism is, in Feyerabend’s view, itself a sham. White Western liberal intellectuals initially claimed to affirm the equality of all people, whatever their tradition. But this equality “did not mean equality of traditions; it meant equality of access to one particular tradition,” namely the liberal and scientific tradition favored by white Western intellectuals.

Then these intellectuals tried to be more sensitive to alternative traditions. But they did so by reinterpreting these traditions in ways that would make them conform to their own liberal and scientific assumptions, especially by downplaying metaphysical beliefs that do not sit well with those assumptions. In this way, “they could pose as understanding friends of non-Western cultures without endangering the supremacy of their own religion: science.”

Illustrations of Feyerabend’s point are all around us. Think, for example, of the preeminent contemporary liberal philosopher John Rawls’s shamelessly tautological assurance that a liberal conception of justice is neutral between all “reasonable comprehensive doctrines”—where a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” is one that is willing to take on board a liberal conception of justice. Or think of the way that liberals take it upon themselves to decide that if adherents of some religion (Islam, for example) say things that don’t conform to liberalism, then they must not be representing the “authentic” form of that religion.

The Apologetics of Scientism

In these ways, Feyerabend holds, the Enlightenment merely replaced the dogmatism of religion with the dogmatism of scientism. But scientism, like religion, has an apologetics. Its advocates claim to have compelling arguments for giving science this hegemonic status. For one thing, science is claimed to have a method superior to all the alternatives; for another, it is claimed to have delivered superior results. But Feyerabend holds that such claims are false, or at best question-begging.

Start with the question of method. For one thing, the very idea of the “scientific method” is a philosopher’s invention, and a notoriously problematic one. The traditional idea going back to Francis Bacon is that scientific method involves the verification of theories via inductive reasoning from theory-neutral observations. But by the middle of the 20th century every aspect of this model had taken a heavy beating from philosophers of science.

Observation is in fact always theory-laden rather than neutral between theories. Every description of what is observed requires conceptualizing it in some way, and how that is done is determined by background theoretical assumptions. Exactly which properties of an observed phenomenon are relevant to inductive inference about unobserved cases is also determined by background theoretical assumptions.

Furthermore, theory is underdetermined by observational evidence in the sense that there are always alternative theories equally compatible with the same observations. The supposition that induction suffices uniquely to verify one theory to the exclusion of others is therefore illusory.

Feyerabend’s teacher, Karl Popper, famously tried to resolve these problems by arguing that scientific method is a matter of trying to falsify rather than verify theories. But Popper’s model is no less fraught with difficulties than the traditional one. Theories are never tested in isolation, but always in conjunction with other theories and background assumptions. Hence experimental testing cannot by itself tell us that it is the theory we are testing that should be discarded, rather than one of the associated theories or background assumptions.

Furthermore, probabilistic claims are part of science, but of their nature they are not falsified by instances where the predicted phenomenon does not appear. Certain principles (such as conservation laws and the preference for simple and unifying theories) are so central to the modern conception of science that to falsify them would be to give up science itself. And so on.

This is all boilerplate philosophy of science, and these points largely predate Feyerabend’s own work. His main contribution to the story concerns his second point about scientific method, which is that even if the proposals put forward by philosophers were unproblematic, history shows that scientists don’t in fact follow them anyway. Feyerabend defended this judgment at greatest length in his best-known book Against Method (1975), which famously makes Galileo into Exhibit A of a scientist who did not abide by the usual proposed canons of scientific rationality.

The Copernican model Galileo championed was neither arrived at through careful inductive reasoning from neutral observational evidence nor abandoned in the face of apparent falsification. It was worked out gradually and piecemeal, in the face of powerful objections that could not at first be answered, and conflicted with both well-confirmed theory and the evidence of the senses as it was then understood.

Galileo had to develop a complex and speculative theoretical rationale for rejecting the most natural reading of this empirical evidence. He even had to rely on rhetorical tricks. In fact, Feyerabend argues, if adherence to stereotypical canons of method is taken to be a hallmark of respectable science, the churchmen who resisted Galileo’s conclusions compare favorably to him. Feyerabend wrote:

The Church at the time of Galileo not only kept closer to reason as defined then and, in part, even now: it also considered the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s views. Its indictment of Galileo was rational and only opportunism and a lack of perspective can demand a revision.

In general, Feyerabend argued, scientists are in reality guided in theory-choice not only by empirical evidence, but by considerations of a philosophical, aesthetic, and social nature. There is no special method that is characteristic of their work, and in fact the most interesting and important developments in science would not have occurred had they confined themselves to any of the constraints that have been claimed to define the “scientific method.”

Feyerabend famously concluded that the only principle which correctly describes actual scientific practice is “anything goes” (though some of his critics mistakenly took this remark as intended to convey a normative principle).

There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.

So the notion that science has a special method that justifies giving it a privileged place in society is, in Feyerabend’s judgment, simply a tendentious philosophical doctrine, to which the citizens of a pluralistic democracy owe no more allegiance than they do to any other such doctrine. So too, he argues, is the claim that science produces results that are superior to those of any other practice or system of belief.

Advocates of scientism would point, say, to the relative accomplishments of rocket science and religious experience, and suppose that the superiority of the former is obvious. Feyerabend responds:

But a mystic who can leave his material body and meet God Himself will hardly be impressed by the fact that thousands of people, using billions of dollars of tax money, succeeded in putting two wrapped-up bodies on a hot and dried-out stone, the moon, and he will deplore the decrease and almost complete destruction of man’s spiritual abilities that is a result of the materialistic-scientific climate of our times.

Feyerabend is well aware that remarks like this will invite outrage and mockery. But such responses would miss his point. Whether mystical experience (or Thomistic metaphysics, or traditional Chinese medicine, or whatever) is a valid source of knowledge, and yields results that are more or less important than those of science, is not itself a scientific question. It is a philosophical question, and scientism simply assumes, without proving, that its answer to it is the correct one.

A mystic might judge his methods to be as legitimate as those of science and to yield far more important results. He might be right about this, and he might be wrong, but science cannot tell us either way, and scientism has no non-question-begging arguments that can tell us either.

Separating Science and State

Always keen to shock, Feyerabend sometimes described his position as “relativism,” but in fact he explicitly rejected what most people think of when they hear that term—namely the thesis that all views are equally true or false. What he really favored was a pluralism that refused to allow any one tradition, including science, to dominate all others politically in a democratic society. His positive defense of this view was essentially an adaptation of Mill’s On Liberty.

Mill gave four main arguments for the freedom to express one’s opinions, and Feyerabend takes a consistent application of them to entail that science ought to have no greater hegemony over society than the Church does.

First, any opinion that we try to suppress might in fact be true, so that by suppressing it we could be leading ourselves and others into error. Mill pointed out that to assume otherwise is to claim infallibility. Yet no one (other than a pope speaking ex cathedra) even claims to be infallible; certainly liberals and scientists do not. But in that case, they cannot consistently hold that some views ought to be considered beyond the pale and entirely unworthy of our attention.

Second, even erroneous and unpopular positions typically contain at least a grain of truth, while correct and popular positions are never entirely free of error. Hence, if we are to get closer to the truth, we need to allow these competing opinions to battle it out in the public square so that their adherents might learn from each other.

Third, even when some popular opinion is true, its adherents tend to become dogmatic and superficial in their understanding of the arguments in its favor when they have not had seriously to grapple with competing views.

Fourth and finally, a grasp even of the meaning of a correct opinion tends to get lost when challenges to it are never permitted. It becomes a banality that is merely parroted rather than understood.

Mill emphasized that it is not enough merely to hear out unpopular opinions in a grudging and perfunctory way. One must try to interpret them in the most sympathetic and persuasive form possible, if one is to discover what truth there might be in them and what weaknesses might lie in more popular opinions.

Furthermore, Mill stressed, it is not enough for the expression of unpopular opinions not to be legally prohibited. There must be no social sanction against their expression. Indeed, he regarded social pressure as more insidious than governmental control. By means of it, Mill says:

Society…practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

In Feyerabend’s view, when science arrogates to itself privileges like those described above, it violates these Millian principles. Advocates of scientism would suppress views that conflict with prevailing scientific opinion, shouting them down and preventing their expression in the public education system. They thereby implicitly claim an infallibility that in other contexts they would say no one has. They also fail to learn from their critics, turning science into an ideology and its findings into a bag of clichés repeated robotically rather than understood.

It is in light of Feyerabend’s commitment to Millian liberalism that his more notorious statements have to be understood. He gave “three cheers to the fundamentalists” who got equal time for creation and evolution in textbooks in the 1970s. That is not because he favored creationism; in the same breath he said that creationists would be just as totalitarian if they had the privileges science has. It is because he favored debate rather than suppression.

Similarly, though he said “astrology bores me to tears,” Feyerabend played devil’s advocate in its defense in response to a pompous 1975 public statement denouncing it that was signed by 186 scientists, including eighteen Nobel Prize winners. He showed that the signatories simply did not understand, or care to understand, the actual views of the people they were condemning, but merely parroted clichés and rested their case on their authority as scientists rather than on arguments reflecting knowledge of the subject matter.

Though not religious, Feyerabend compared the signatories unfavorably to the practice of the Church in thoroughly mastering and answering the arguments of the heretics that she condemns. Again, what Feyerabend favored was debate between opinions rather than denunciations, suppression, and appeals to authority. In his view, neither the Church nor science should be permitted such tactics.

Scientism, then, is epistemically dangerous in Feyerabend’s view. In the name of rationalism, it actually promotes an irrational dogmatism. But he also took it to be morally wrong. Everyone agrees that a consumer has the right to accept or reject the advice of experts like plumbers and auto mechanics, and that patients have the right to accept or reject the advice of doctors. Consumers and patients are the ones paying the bills, and the ones whose lives are affected. Even when they are wrong and the experts are correct, the experts simply don’t have the right to make the final call on such matters.

But things are no different where the relationship between scientists and other citizens is concerned. In Feyerabend’s judgement, scientists have no more business forcing the taxpayer to fund their researches than plumbers and physicians have the right to force consumers to pay for their services if they don’t want them. Nor do citizens have any obligation to accept scientific opinion as a whole, rather than picking and choosing from among its deliverances. “Scientists are salesmen of ideas and gadgets,” he wrote, not “High Priests of Right Living.”

Nor are citizens under any obligation to let scientific considerations trump other aspects of an issue, any more than a consumer ought to let an auto mechanic’s advice trump budget considerations, or any more than a patient should let a doctor’s recommendation of a certain treatment trump considerations about the effect it would have on his quality of life.

Where scientists’ advice on some matter of public policy is relevant, citizens are well-advised to take it seriously. But human life is multifaceted, and there are always non-scientific considerations that must be factored in as well. Scientists as such have no greater expertise on those matters than anyone else, and thus have no business deciding the relative importance of scientific and non-scientific aspects of policy questions.

Feyerabend draws the following analogy. If, in the interests of national defense, we let military considerations trump all others, we might kill the enemy much more effectively. But we would also risk being led into grave immorality on the battlefield, and into an unhealthy militarization of society. Looking at the world exclusively through a military lens would produce tunnel vision. But so too does looking at the world exclusively through a scientific lens.

Feyerabend thus called for a “separation of science and state,” though it is not really science, but scientism, that he wanted entirely to disentangle from government. One needn’t agree with everything he said (and I certainly don’t) to think it a salutary counterbalance to the sometimes excessive deference to expert opinion that has characterized the COVID-19 crisis.

Consider that, in the name of science, hundreds of millions of people around the globe have been put under house arrest and out of work. Sick and elderly people have been forbidden the comfort of their families, in many cases dying alone. Lockdown defenders have moved the goalposts, initially aiming to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, but then seeking new rationales once that was accomplished.

Experts have shamelessly let political considerations determine how stringently to apply social distancing policy to different groups. They have in some cases not followed the rules they would impose on others, and have even attracted personality cults. Though the virus poses grave danger mainly to the elderly and those already suffering from other serious ailments, even the healthy have been put under quarantine. The models and fatality estimates that have guided policy have been repeatedly revised.

Yet scientists who have challenged the dominant views have had their motives questioned, and skeptics have been harshly denounced and even censored. The shibboleth “Science!” has become an all-purpose conversation-stopper and replacement for thought.

As political correctness has moved liberalism’s center of gravity further left, the state’s obeisance to scientism becomes only harder to justify. Government is now more supportive of medical treatments which, at the time Feyerabend was writing, it eschewed in the name of science. Woke extremists are demanding that medical practice and academic hiring in the sciences conform themselves to egalitarian political desiderata, and some are taking the social justice agenda even into basic arithmetic. Even the pretense of scientific objectivity that liberalism gives with its left hand is now being taken away by its far-left hand.

These developments illustrate the ways in which the practice of science can sometimes be arbitrary, dogmatic, authoritarian, politicized, blinkered, highly fallible, and destructive of other social values—just as Feyerabend warned. That does not entail that COVID-19 is not a serious problem (it is) or that the lockdown was not initially justifiable (it was). But expertise that does not acknowledge its own limitations takes from us as much as it gives, and irrationalism is never more dangerous than when clothed in rationalist drag.

Feyerabend’s last word on the subject should be our own: “The hardest task needs the lightest hand or else its completion will not lead to freedom but to a tyranny much worse than the one it replaces.”

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